What do sharks do in the deep? Device may tell

A great white shark, known as Genie, is corralled Sept. 13 off the coast of Chatham, Mass. Chris Fischer and his crew hope to understand the migratory patterns and breeding habits of great whites with the goal of providing policy makers with the data necessary to protect them.
A great white shark, known as Genie, is corralled Sept. 13 off the coast of Chatham, Mass. Chris Fischer and his crew hope to understand the migratory patterns and breeding habits of great whites with the goal of providing policy makers with the data necessary to protect them. Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times

Chatham, Mass. - Beachgoers on Cape Cod may have spotted sharks this summer, but when Chris Fischer and his crew - former subjects of History Channel's "Shark Wranglers" - went looking for the great whites here last month, there were none.

For days, crew members scanned the sea from their converted crabbing vessel, the Ocearch, in federal waters three miles off the Cape. They made scouting missions in smaller boats. They tossed out chum and waited, their boredom and disappointment growing as they turned to their computers or played basketball on deck.

Nine days passed. Then, on Sept. 13, a giant shark that would become known as Genie reared her head, or rather her fin, and burst into oceanographic history. Hooked in the corner of her mouth, she became what Fischer said was the first great white - all 2,292 pounds of her - to be captured live off Cape Cod, the waters that the movie "Jaws" made famous.

The Ocearch crew held her for 15 minutes in a cradle off the side of the boat. A team of scientists attached a GPS tag to her dorsal fin and took blood and tissue samples before releasing her back into the deep. Now the researchers, and anyone with an Internet connection, can follow her movements in real time online on the "shark tracker" on ocearch.com.

Four days later, the team landed a much bigger female - Mary Lee, who weighed in at 3,456 pounds and measured 16 feet. She was feistier, and her capture was more dramatic. She exhausted herself in a strong current before the crew pulled her into the cradle, with her thrashing tail swatting three of them.

Catching sharks is something that Fischer, the founding chairman of Ocearch, a nonprofit organization that facilitates research on oceans and fish, and his crew have done scores of times. Before arriving here, they completed a similar expedition off South Africa, where they tagged several great whites whose travel patterns also can be followed online.

The purpose of their mission, said Fischer, 44, is to crack the code of these fascinating and mysterious animals. He and the scientists traveling with him hope to understand their migratory patterns and breeding habits, with the goal of providing policymakers with the necessary data to protect them. The online tracker also can alert coastal residents and tourists when sharks are in the vicinity.

For some environmentalists, the mission is not so benign, or even necessary. They see the live capture of sharks as more invasive than other methods of tagging, like using a harpoon to implant a tracking device. The great whites already are a protected species in the United States, they argue, and the use of hooks and a method that exhausts them before pulling them out of the water subjects them to unnecessary trauma. During the South African expedition, one shark died.

A petition with 750 signatures delivered to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries sought to deny Fischer a permit for his expedition here. There was concern that in addition to harming the sharks, the project was being carried out under the guise of science for sensationalist and for-profit purposes like reality television. But the state did not stop it, and Fischer and his crew completed their 16-day expedition, which included periodic visits from scientists and journalists but no reality-TV cameras, at the end of September.

Fischer chafes at the criticism; he said he had been trying to shed reality-TV image, and that one reason for inviting the news media was to open the process to the public. He dismissed the objections as "emotional rants" by an ill-informed fringe group.

For example, he said, tags implanted on sharks through harpooning are less reliable than those attached to the fin because they can fall off after six months and they emit a signal only if receivers are placed in the water around them. It is impossible to know where the sharks are going, he said, and therefore impossible to plant receivers everywhere they might go. By contrast, he said, when sharks are captured, the GPS tags can be attached securely with a drill. They are read by satellites every time the fin breaks the surface of the water and can emit signals for five years.

Fischer also said he was working with marine biologists eager for the chance to see a great white up close.

Genie (named for Eugenie Clark, a famous shark researcher) and Mary Lee (named for Fischer's mother) are now pinging their locations to satellites and creating an online trail of where they have traveled.

Genie is still lurking off the Massachusetts' southern coast while Mary Lee is about even with Raleigh, N.C., but still way out at sea.

"They show up at the Cape and they leave, and we don't know anything about them or what they're doing," Fischer said. "This tracking will begin to reveal their lives. Anybody can learn about these sharks and follow their story."

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